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Rookie contract hero: Can the Bears trust Mitchell Trubisky?

The second-year quarterback’s got great numbers, but is he a great player?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Bears paid a massive premium for the opportunity to draft Mitchell Trubisky, but that 2017 overpay has turned into 2018 wins.

Chicago was desperate for a franchise quarterback in ‘17. Past attempts to draft one failed behind half-formed passers like Rex Grossman, Cade McNown, and Kyle Orton. Trading for one netted eight years of slightly above-average play from Jay Cutler, one playoff win, and approximately 657,000 memes.

Trubisky was the player general manager Ryan Pace landed on in the pre-draft process that spring. The single-year starter at North Carolina made such an impact on the Bears that the club was not only willing to burn a first-round pick on the prospect just months after signing Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million deal, but eager to trade up to do so. The cost to move up from the No. 3 overall pick that year to No. 2 and prevent other interested teams from jumping the line to snag Trubisky cost Chicago its first-round pick, two third-rounders, and a fourth-rounder.

But it’s paying off; Trubisky has pushed his Bears to the top of the NFC North and in position for their first playoff berth since 2010.

Mitchell Trubisky has turned around the Bears offense (with the help of some new additions)

Trubisky’s rookie season was always going to be found money. With Glennon on board to captain a rebuilding vessel, any contribution the first-year QB made was a silver lining on a lost season. The former Buccaneer only made it four games before bounce-passing his way out of the starting lineup, and Chicago got 75 percent of the season to see what its prized new possession could do.

There were good moments and bad for Trubisky, but mostly a lot of growing pains for a rookie passer on a depleted roster. The Bears ran through the AFC North (4-0 against the division) and struggled against the rest of the league (1-11) as head coach John Fox handled Trubisky with the softest of kid gloves. He threw just seven passes in a shocking win over the Panthers and then 15 in a loss to the 49ers. While he flashed potential in a 271-yard, one-touchdown performance to beat the Bengals, he also winged a pair of interceptions and completed only 17 of his 33 passes in a blowout loss to the Eagles.

The Bears and new head coach Matt Nagy borrowed liberally from the Rams’ blueprint to help him make a Jared Goff-like leap in year two. The team handed out $100 million in contracts to surround him with dynamic young talent, pairing Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, and Taylor Gabriel to an offense with an already-potent backfield.

The results have been exactly what Chicago wanted to see. The 2017 Bears ranked 29th in the league in points scored. This year’s version clocks in at No. 5 after recording a shade under 30 points per game. One look at Trubisky’s numbers suggests a player who’s gone from overmatched rookie to one of the league’s top 10 quarterbacks.

Mitchell Trubisky’s 2017 vs. his breakout 2018 in numbers

Year Record Passes per game Cmp% Yds/Game TD TD% Int Int% Adjusted Yards/Pass Rate QBR Sack Rate
Year Record Passes per game Cmp% Yds/Game TD TD% Int Int% Adjusted Yards/Pass Rate QBR Sack Rate
2017 4-8 27.5 59.4 182.75 7 2.1 7 2.1 6.1 77.5 31.6 8.6
2018 6-3 32.2 65.5 256 19 6.6 7 2.4 8.2 101.6 73.7 5.8

But is Trubisky actually good, or just feasting on weak opposition?

Bad quarterbacks can put up big numbers. Blake Bortles strung together a 4,400-yard, 35-touchdown campaign in his second season as a pro, but his biggest contribution in 2015 was limited to fantasy rosters as his Jaguars went 5-11. Trubisky’s big sophomore season has come with a better record, but his wins haven’t exactly inspired confidence.

Trubisky’s Bears have zero victories over teams with winning records this fall. They’ve only beaten one team within one game of .500: a rebuilding Seahawks team. The young passer has four games with a passer rating higher than 102 and five where it sunk to 83 or lower. Consistency is not his calling card.

Let’s take a closer look at those four big performances, which include three wins and an overtime loss to the Dolphins.

In Week 10, he torched the Lions for 355 yards and three touchdowns. That’s immensely better than what Tom Brady did in a Week 3 matchup against Detroit, but the advanced stats suggest it was more a function of the Lions’ putrid passing defense — who was missing top defensive back Darius Slay — than any real wizardry from the Bears quarterback. Matt Patricia’s team ranks dead last in opponent passing efficiency and second-to-last in standard down success rate and big-play rate, according to Bill Connelly’s advanced stats.

He exploded for a career-high six touchdown passes (his previous high was two) in a rout of the Buccaneers. This was very good, but it turns out Tampa Bay’s defense can’t really do anything right.

The Lions and Buccaneers are the two worst defensive teams Trubisky’s faced, but they help uncover a trend in his big games. Every single one of the defenses he’s balled out on has a big-play rating in the lower half of the league’s rankings. Every one of the defenses that’s held him to an 83 rating or lower, with the exception of the Patriots, is a top 10 unit.

This tells us Trubisky’s breakout season has been buoyed by big plays that aren’t sustainable against tight defenses. He thrashed the Lions with three touchdown passes of 25+ yards, but languished against a Cardinals defense that limited him to just 6.3 yards per attempt and forced the Bears to score their only touchdown of the game on the ground. He’s capable of dusting the Buccaneers en route to a near-perfect QB rating, but can still get flustered by a good, not great, Patriots D (plus, 79 yards of his 333-yard performance that day came in a last-gasp drive against New England’s prevent defense and a Hail Mary reception at the 1-yard line).

He can grow out of these flaws, and the Bears will benefit even if he struggles

Trubisky’s inexpensive contract has been the launching point for the Bears’ rebuild. He cost the team $6.6 million in salary cap space this fall while playing like a quarterback who is, if we’re using his top 10 QB Rating as an indication, worth approximately $23.5 million. His performance has created a surplus of around $17 million for the Bears, and that number could grow in the next two seasons as his level of play — and the tide of quarterback salaries — continues to rise.

That was a best-case scenario for Chicago, who also got the chance to clear Glennon’s $15 million salary from its books over the next two years, albeit with $4.5 million in dead cap space sticking around in 2018. The franchise maximized his performance by taking the savings created by its rookie contract quarterback and re-invested it elsewhere on the roster. Free agents Burton, Robinson, and Gabriel ($22.5 million in cap space for 2018) were added to upgrade a receiving corps that relied on non-stars like Josh Bellamy and Dontrelle Inman (47 combined catches in 2017).

But the biggest ripple created from Trubisky’s relatively cheap contract and the Bears’, uh, bare-bones roster was the space to free Khalil Mack from Oakland and watch him return to his 2016 Defensive Player of the Year form. Chicago’s resurrected offense has been important in making this team watchable again but Mack, who has seven sacks and four forced fumbles in seven games this fall, is making the Bears defense look like THE BEARS DEFENSE again.

If we dig back into the advanced stats well one more time, you’ll find a litany of important categories where Chicago clocks in among the league’s top teams:

The addition of Mack and the ascendance of rookie Roquan Smith have unlocked a new level for what had been a top 10 defense a season before. But could Chicago have afforded to make Mack the league’s highest-paid defender if it were paying Glennon $15 million per year to drive the Bears into the red zone and then weep uncontrollably?

Mack is going to eat up $22.3 million in cap space next year, leaving the club with only $19.3 million in uncommitted space for 2019 — the seventh-smallest amount in the league. Without the room created by Trubisky’s presence, giving Mack the $141 million contract he deserved seems unlikely.

The big deals to Mack, Burton, and Robinson are engineered to operate within the cap window created by a starting quarterback’s rookie contract. So what happens when the bill comes due for Trubisky?

What’s Mitchie T going to cost the Bears in 2021?

Even if Trubisky can’t translate his top 15 stats into playoff wins, he’s going to get paid. He doesn’t have to look beyond his own division to see why.

Matthew Stafford has been the league’s highest-paid player on multiple occasions despite playing in the cursed wasteland of Ford Field. The former No. 1 overall pick has made more than $178 million over the course of 10 seasons, notching exactly zero postseason victories in the process. Above-average young quarterbacks tend to get record-setting extensions before their rookie deals are up. Stafford did it. Derek Carr did it. Pretty much every recent emerging starting QB but Kirk Cousins did it.

The question is what that’s going to look like in 2021. That’ll be the offseason before Trubisky’s $29 million fifth-year option comes in, and allowing him to head into the season without a long-term deal would risk losing him in free agency. The bad news is Chicago already has a bunch of cap space tied up in some recent signings. Mack will cost $24 million. Kyle Fuller’s due to make $18.5 million. Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman will combine to make more than $23 million that season.

There’s plenty of time for cuts to be made — though many of the team’s biggest contracts come with some sizable dead money — or deals to be restructured, but 44 percent of the team’s projected salary cap is set to be eaten up by six players. Adding Trubisky’s $29 million hit means seven players — Mack, Fuller, Hicks, Goldman, Burton, Trubisky, and Charles Leno — will take up over $113 million of the team’s payroll.

Few teams can afford to let a promising homegrown quarterback leave, let alone one with a tortured past like the Bears. So Chicago is going to have to get creative to fit a supporting cast around Mack and Trubisky in a year where they’ll combine to make more than $50 million. 2021 is going to be tricky for Pace, assuming he’s still around. He’s going to have to work around a quarterback contract that should clock in at something like five years and $155-160 million.

If the Bears dub him worthy of Stafford-esque guarantees (68 percent guaranteed), that money will shake out to around $105 million locked in. If they work from the template of their seven-year, $126 million extension for Jay Cutler (42.8 percent guaranteed), that guarantee will be more like $70 million. That’s a wide range, and it will depend on Trubisky’s performance and a shifting tide that’s given players like Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers monster guarantees over the past year.

That’s a lot of money, but the Trubisky who’s torn up vulnerable defenses would be worth it. The guy who looked like Brock Osweiler against the league’s top secondaries? Not as much.

Other rookie contract studs who upped their value in Week 10:

Jared Goff, QB, Rams (318 passing yards, 2 TDs in win over Seahawks)

Nick Chubb, RB, Browns (176 rush yards, 2 total TDs in win over Falcons)

Aaron Jones, RB, Packers (145 rush yards, 2 TDs in win over Dolphins)

Corey Davis, WR, Titans (125 yards, 1 TD in win over Patriots)

Michael Dickson, P, Seahawks (three punts, 165 dang yards in loss to Rams)

Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Cowboys (13 tackles, 1 INT in win over Eagles)

Roquan Smith, LB, Bears (10 tackles, 1 sack in win over Lions)

Previously in rookie contract heroes:

Week 1: Michael Thomas

Week 2: Matt Breida

Week 3: Myles Garrett

Week 4: Patrick Mahomes II, Tyreek Hill, and Kareem Hunt

Week 5: T.J. Watt

Week 6: Saquon Barkley

Week 7: Darius Leonard

Week 8: James Conner

Week 9: Marcus Peters